Violence as a Form of Justice - Informing Understanding, Shaping Judgment, and Guiding Behavior - Scripture and Tradition
Last week Pope Francis reversed the Catholic Church's teaching on the death penalty.
From the Catholic News Agency:
Pope Francis ordered a revision to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, updating it to describe the death penalty as “inadmissible” and an “attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”
In the fall of 2017 I wrote "An Argument Against Violence as Justice." Below you will find portions of that paper, showing that while Papal proclamations and Christian protests outside of prisions and courts are on going, there is still much to do.
The Canon of scripture in the Christian tradition includes both the Old and New Testaments. It is impossible to ignore texts from the Old Testament where violence as a form of justice is written to be the law of God. It is important, however, to take into consideration the context of the culture in which these particular texts were written and not read them in isolation. It is easy to look at scripture, pulling one or two verses out to support any particular position on any topic. When we look to the New Testament, and the new covenant made by God through Jesus with God’s Creation, we see that not only is violence as a form of justice not advocated for but also that it is incompatible with the teachings of the One sent to implement the new covenant.
The crucifixion of Jesus alone illustrates that violence is not a form of justice compatible with His teachings. Leading up to Jesus’ moment of death on Calvary, His own disciples attempted to use violence in the prevention of His arrest. When Peter drew his sword, as Jesus was being arrested, Jesus said, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” Jesus’ teachings, even during His arrest and death, were contrary to how his disciples thought and we continue to act today. It is easy to say that if I am wronged by someone that my response to the offense must be of equal if not greater force. We often think of “an eye for an eye” or “a tooth for a tooth” but when we think this way, the Church must look to Jesus’ teachings on these exact scriptures, saying, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” Here Jesus is pushing back against the scriptures once used by Jews during His earthly ministry and Christians today to advocate for the use of violence as a form of justice.
Jesus’ ministry with individual people, outside His disciples, also called into question the implementation of violence as a form of justice. In John 8:2-21, Jesus encounters an adulterous woman. According to Augustine of Hippo, Jesus provides us with three significant points to consider when state-sanctioned violence allowed to serve as a form of justice from this story. First, according to the law, the woman is, in fact, guilty and accordingly should have been stoned to death. The innocence of the woman is not being addressed by Jesus in this scene. She is not the subject. The woman’s punishment was to be dealt with by men who also deserved punishment. Those gathering stones to throw were not without their own guilt. This point is highlighted when Jesus says to the crowd, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her”. Finally, so while punishment may have been doled out by the crowd (legally), it could not have been administered fairly by “human judges” who themselves were not innocent. Judgment is reserved for the One who was without guilt when He was hung from a tree and not for those whose own guilt stains the justice sought through violence.
During the middle ages, Christian theologians and philosophers advocated against the state’s use of violence as a form of justice. The concept of “dignitas” was developed to distinguish between humankind and other creatures. This concept was used to identify the dignity inherent in humans. This was meant to ensure that humans were treated with the dignity due as people created in the image of God. The goal was to “limit the punishment that might” be served at the hands of “unconstrained rulers.” This theological and philosophical thought was twisted by Voltaire because Christian teaching favored restrictions to severe punishment while not explicitly denouncing torture and the death penalty. It is not that Christians in the Middle Ages were not against the death penalty it’s that they did not explicitly say that they were.
Doctrine surrounding the atonement of sin addresses the use of violence as a form of justice. The universe has been and will continue to be thrown out of balance by murder, if repayment is required for death with further death, Christ has already done this repayment through his own death. This is not a popular thought, that Jesus’ death atoned for the sins of murders and others sentenced to capital punishment, but when we look to the tradition of the Church, and teachings of the Apostle Paul, we see that all sin causes us to fall short of the glory of God and that no sin is greater than another. The result of Jesus’ death upon the cross is mercy and forgiveness for all. The question regarding allocation of forgiveness has been answered by Jesus’ victory over death.
Arguments against violence as a form of justice are no limited to Protestant theologians. In Evangelium Viate Pope John Paul II wrote, “The problem must be viewed in the context of a system of penal justice ever more in line with human dignity and thus, in the end, with God's plan for man and society. The primary purpose of the punishment which society inflicts is 'to redress the disorder caused by the offence.’” There is an inherent dignity in the individual that should not be denied by anyone let alone the state. There is sacred worth breathed into each of us at our birth by our Creator. If the offended is killed by the state, there is then no possibility of rehabilitation in capital punishment. The state is denying the possibility of sanctification to take place in the offender’s life.
Denominations within the Church have also added their voices and theological perspective in advocacy against violence as form of Justice. According to the United Methodist Church’s Social Principles, violence as a form of justice denies Christ’s power to redeem an individual. Further, all human life is “sacred,” “significant and valuable.” Violence against an offender, on the part of the state or anyone seeking vigilante justice, refuses to acknowledge the sacred worth of the offender; “Reconciliation is possible to all individuals without exception.” Jesus’ death and resurrection, and the resulting atonement of our sin, was not limited to those who consider themselves or are considered by others to be saintlier than others. As was the case in Jesus’ ministry with the adulterous woman, those casting judgments on a person sentenced to death at the hand of the state, or those seeking vigilante justice are themselves guilty of sin. When death is used as a form of justice we deny the opportunity for reconciliation to be made between the offender and the state as well as the offender and their Creator.
 Matthew 27:32-44
 Matthew 26:52
 Exodus 21:24
 Matthew 5:8
 John 8:7
 Lösel, pg. 189
 McCrudden, pg. 658
 McCrudden, pg. 659
 Bottum, pg. 20
 Bottum, pg. 20
 Romans 3:23
 Barth, pg. 442
 Paul, John. “Evangelium Vitae.” Changing Unjust Laws Justly, pp. 289–316., doi:10.2307/j.ctt284tpq.14.
Want to learn more? Check out these resources.
Barth, K., Bromiley, G. W., & Torrance, T. F. (2010). Church dogmatics (Vol. 4.3, 14 vols.). Hendrickson.
Communications, U. M. (2017, November 24). Social Principles: The Political Community. Retrieved from http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/political-community
Cooper, B., Cox, D., Lienesch, R., & Jones, R. P. (2015, November 11). Anxiety, Nostalgia, and Mistrust: Findings from the 2015 American Values Survey. Retrieved November 19, 2017, from https://www.prri.org/research/survey-anxiety-nostalgia-and-mistrust-findings-from-the-2015-american-values-survey/#.VlR1qN-rR7N
Drehle, V. (2014, April 28). US Death Penalty Wrongful Convictions Executions. Retrieved from http://time.com/79572/more-innocent-people-on-death-row-than-estimated-study/
Henderson, K. (1997). How Many Innocent Inmates Are Executed? An Illinois coalition moves to stop the death penalty in the wake of startling statistics. Human Rights, 24(4), 10-11. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/27880061
Lösel, S. (2010). Fighting for Human Dignity: A Christian Vision for Punishment Reform. Political Theology, 11(2), 179-204. doi:10.1558/poth.v11i2.179
McCrudden, C. (2008). Human Dignity and Judicial Interpretation of Human Rights. European Journal of International Law, 19(4), 655-724. doi:10.1093/ejil/chn043
Miller, M. K., & Bornstein, B. H. (2006). The Use of Religion in Death Penalty Sentencing Trials. Law and Human Behavior, 30(6), 675-684. doi:10.1007/s10979-006-9056-6
Paul, J., II. (n.d.). Evangelium Vitae. Changing Unjust Laws Justly, 289-316. doi:10.2307/j.ctt284tpq.14
Protocol No. 6 to the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms concerning the Abolition of the Death Penalty. (1983). Human Rights Quarterly, 5(3). doi:10.2307/762032
Protocol No. 13 : Article 1 - Abolition of the death penalty. (n.d.). European Convention on Human Rights : Commentary. doi:10.5040/9781472561725.0035
"Social Principles: The Political Community." United Methodist Communications, http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/political-community. Accessed 24 November 2017.
Walldrop, R. (2017, November 19). A Christian Perspective on the Death Penalty. Retrieved from https://www.vadp.org/resources/a-christian-perspective-on-the-death-penalty/
Whitman, J. Q. (2005). Harsh justice: Criminal punishment and the widening divide between America and Europe. Oxford University Press.